The NOLA Experiment Forges Ahead


Benjamin Banneker Elementary closed Wednesday as New Orleans’s Recovery School District permanently shuttered its last five traditional public schools this week.

With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.

It has been two decades since the first public charter school opened in Minnesota, conceived as a laboratory where innovations could be tested before their introduction into public schools. Now, 42 states encourage charters as an alternative to conventional schools, and enrollment has been growing, particularly in cities. In the District of Columbia, 44 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools.

But in New Orleans, under the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state agency that seized control of almost all public schools after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, the traditional system has been swept away.

This move is naturally drawing fire from the Left, some of which is misinformed. They are claiming that the entire school district has been turned over to “fundamentalist schools”, confusing Louisiana’s experiment in vouchers with their experiment in charter schools. They are claiming that the RSD fired 7,000 mostly black teachers in favor of white ones. In fact, those teachers were fired immediately after Katrina (as the WaPo later corrects) and most found employment in whatever areas the escaped to after Katrina. They claim that this is “re-segregating” New Orleans because some charter schools are mostly white. There may be some validity to that, but dysfunctional schools that don’t teach anything are probably the most effective means of resegregation you could imagine.

The initial results are impressive:

Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.

There is a big caveat to this: the population of the RSD is different so a direct comparison is tenuous. And charter schools elsewhere have had mixed results. So we’ll have to see how this pans out in the years ahead.

I do know that this idea is better than anything the Left has had for the last half century. Those ideas have included spending more money, spending more money, spending more money, spending more money and spending more money. They have included changing to a new paradigm every few years just as the teachers get used to the old one. They have included standardized testing, which encourages teachers to “teach to the test”. They have included the new Core Standards, which are becoming highly controversial. The results have been … well, nothing. Educational accomplishment has remained flat despite ever-increasing funding. Even when they have been given free reign to do whatever they want, the results have been unimpressive:

For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” The education establishment and its supporters have replied, “No one’s ever tried.” In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.

The Kansas City experiment suggests that, indeed, educational problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them, that the structural problems of our current educational system are far more important than a lack of material resources, and that the focus on desegregation diverted attention from the real problem, low achievement.

That was 20 years ago. We’re spending twice as much per student now. You can look at a more recent example in Newark where hundreds of millions of private funds were poured into the school district to accomplish nothing except enriching some consultants. You can also check out Hot Air, which has some details about DeBlasio shutting down charters that are performing well to send funds to traditional schools that aren’t.

Maybe New Orleans’ experiment won’t work. But when your schools cost a fortune and accomplish nothing, you’ve got to try something other than burning more money. I hope this does work because the state of our education system is maddening to everyone … especially the people working in it.

Over at the Lefty blogs, you can find plenty of people hoping it doesn’t work (that is, hoping that poor children don’t get educated) and flinging racist insults against supporters of the model. It’s not hard to see why the Left wing is so terrified. If this works, it will undermine basically everything they’ve been saying about education for the last fifty years. And severely weaken one of the Democrats’ principle sources of campaign contributions.

Update: I was thinking about this some more and thought about something Megan McArdle said in the context of reforming the VA:

This is the sort of turnaround that a lot of corporate chief executive officers promise: We’ll handle more customers, but faster! Most of them fail, too. And corporate CEOs have a weapon that the president doesn’t: They can fire most of the staff. When looking at corporate turnarounds for my book on failure, I came across a lot of stories of successful turnarounds, and a lot of them started with just that step.

I know, that sounds cruel. Capital against labor! And actually, it is pretty terrible for workers who get the sack. On the other hand, it may be necessary to save the company.

Over time, institutions develop a strong culture, a set of institutional practices, customs and norms that control what the organization is capable of doing. To see what I mean, imagine the staff of the New York Times producing Gawker — or the staff of Gawker Media producing the New York Times. This is functionally what companies are often trying to do in a turnaround situation: transform a company that had a profitable niche in one part of the industry into the very different sort of company that competes in a different niche.

But the inability to make this kind of radical change does hamper would-be government reformers. So does the way that our government now functions after decade upon decade of prior reform: which is to say, it prioritizes processes, which can be measured, over outcomes, which often can’t be; rules over discretion; and rights over trade-offs.

What that means in plain English is that when you put reforms in place, you can’t just rip out the stuff that’s not working and do something different. What you’re actually reforming is the process, and because many of the current elements of the process are functionally mandated by other government rules, or court rulings, or bits of legislation that your reform effort didn’t amend, you have to layer your reform on top of the system you wanted to reform, rather than in place of it. Many of your reforms simply stack another layer of bureaucracy on top of the bureaucracy that was already causing problems. This is a problem that CEOs don’t face, unless they’re in some heavily regulated business such as banking or oil refining.

Eventually, almost every organization gets to the point where you have to burn it down and start all over. It’s not the people are evil or stupid or incompetent. It’s that they think a certain way and approach problems a certain way even if that way no longer works. They do this because that is the way it has always been done. Look at what happened in Newark. A truckload of money was backed up and it went to the same old stuff and devolved into the same political battles.

Again, maybe remaking the RSD school system won’t work. But it’s the first time we’re going to completely reboot a school system. That’s at least worth a shot, isn’t it?

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  1. InsipiD

    This move is naturally drawing fire from the Left, some of which is misinformed.

    All of which is misinformed. Even if a liberal is voicing valid criticism, they are doing it for the wrong reasons (see PATRIOT act, Iraq war, etc.).

    The biggest problem with this is that the school district appears to be one part of NOLA that actually took advantage of an opportunity to flush the toilet and start over, but they’re drawing ire from the same kind of people who apparently think that Nagin’s “Chocolate City” promise was a promise that the status quo would be preserved. New Orleans wasn’t so much chocolate before Katrina as it was something else that is brown. This is sort of a modern day fight between the Democrats that still consider Huey Long to be a hero and anyone else who might have used a brain to get their ideas.

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